Tag Archives: nonfiction

Review: On the Trail: A History of American Hiking

On the Trail: A History of American HikingOn the Trail: A History of American Hiking by Silas Chamberlin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first started hiking as a kid with my family and later as a boy scout, I never gave much thought to how trails were made or who made them. Even as a teenager and then as a young adult, I had some vague sense that these trails were probably created by the CCC half a century ago. It wasn’t until I joined a local trail organization myself and started working to maintain and build new trails that I began to understand the sheer amount of man-hours (person-hours?) that go into keeping the trails open and enjoyable.

“On the Trail” describes the evolution of trail walking and hiking, from its inception of nature and rural graveyard strolls to organized clubs to the current incarnation of largely solo and ad hoc group hiking. Chamberlin’s history focuses on a few key groups and areas, such as the Dartmouth Outing Club, the Sierra Club, the Appalachian Trail, and (briefly) the Pacific Crest Trail, though many other organizations and trails get some coverage. His work nicely bridges the gap that seems to exist in outdoors-nature writing, which often goes “Thoreau > present.”

If you’re a hiker, backpacker, or outdoors enthusiast, this is a book I’ll happily recommend. It’ll give you something interesting to contemplate or discuss while you’re out on the trail yourself and make you wonder: “who built the trail I’m on now? Who takes care of it?” It might even make you feel inspired to get involved in a local trail organization of your own; always a good thing! Certainly, I felt a sense of vindication and pleasure knowing that I’ve shifted my hiking style from “net consumer” of trails to “net producer” (terms that Chamberlin uses to describe the shift).

If you don’t see what all the fuss is about when it comes to the outdoors or if your sense of what hiking should be is largely associated with forced family gatherings that are to be endured rather than enjoyed, there’s nothing here that’s going to make you want to strap on a pair of boots. But that’s okay, because this book is really aimed at the crowd of hikers who like to go out, enjoy the woods, but maybe haven’t thought too much more about how they can give back to their hobby. If nothing else, it’ll make you appreciate how much work went into, and still goes into, created all the paths we enjoy.

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Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not all three star reviews are the same. Most of the time, 3 stars means “yeah, it was good. I liked it.” The PB&J experience in book form, if you will. Enjoyable, satisfying, but not something you’re going to recommend to someone to impress them (“oh man, let me make lunch for you, I’ll put together this amazing sandwich!”)

However, every once in a while, you’ll get a book that clocks in at three stars that manages to be full of amazing moments, but is tied up with such tangled problems that the three stars is really more of an average between two metrics: 5 stars for content, 1 star for readability.

I started this book on December 22. Completely coincidentally, I finished it on April 22. It . . . is not a long book.

Science books always have to balance two categories: the level of scientific content and the level of their readability to the layperson (someone like me). In the case of “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are” (henceforth referred to as AWSETKHSAA), the science is good, and interesting, and fun . . . but the readability factor is all over the map.

It’s not that this is a difficult book, either. I’ve tried to read books that are basically trying to explain the physics of black holes to PhD students. AWSETKHSAA is . . . I guess the word I would use is “slippery.” Or “wandering.” I would start in on it, read ten or twenty pages, then my attention would meander off.

The author moves from one experiment to another, talking about this or that, various animals and experiments and results and discussions — and it’s interesting, it really is! — but it’s hard to follow him. If you asked me to briefly summarize each chapter of the book I just finished, I’d have a hard time doing it.

And that’s a shame, because there are great moments throughout. I read several sections aloud, both because they were interesting and fun! “In a recognition test, an octopus was exposed to two different persons, one of whom consistently fed it, whereas the other mildly poked it with a bristle on a stick.” How can you not love the mental image of a scientist poking an octopus with a stick FOR SCIENCE!

Ultimately, the question of recommendation comes down to how curious you are about the premise. There is a lot (a lot!) of great work being done in the field of animal cognition. It’s more complex than I personally had imagined and AWSETKHSAA will give you a great crash course in the work that’s being done across a variety of animal species. That said, this is the kind of book you’d seek out if you’re already interested in the topic. If you’re more of a dilettante with your reading habits (as I tend to be), this one might be too unwieldy.

On the other hand, a scientist does poke an octopus with a stick. So, there’s that.

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Review: Encounters with the Archdruid

Encounters with the ArchdruidEncounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a time capsule for the environmentalist. It’s a fossil. It’s a treasure.

“Encounters with the Archdruid” takes us back to 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency will be born this year. Climate change isn’t yet in the environmentalist’s lexicon; even its forerunner, “the greenhouse effect” is still a decade away from being a talking point. The greatest scourges are hydroelectric dams, mining, and housing developments. You can drink from the Colorado River, untreated, without worrying about giardia. The American southwest is still largely a remote backwater, with none of the explosive growth that it will see in the 80s and 90s.

It’s an entirely different world.

John McPhee writes about three different narratives with David Brower, the famous conservationist and former Sierra Club director. Part travelogue, part dialogue, McPhee captures the experiences and conversations as Brower explores different wilderness areas with men who are, quite possibly, his archenemies: a mineral engineer advocating for a copper mine, a developer who purchased a mostly pristine Atlantic island, and the Director of the Bureau of Reclamation who wants to build dams where ever dams can be built.

The discussions themselves are interesting and thought-provoking; should we aspire to be conservationists, who manage land wisely and responsibly, or preservationists, who leave the land alone entirely? Brower is firmly the latter, the other men the former, and in a supreme display of narrator neutrality, we never find out which camp McPhee falls into.

The fact that they’re able to go on these trips at all and argue while hiking or rafting before throwing back a beer shows that it was a different time. The things that Brower rails against, hydroelectric dams being his biggest bugbear, now seem quaint when we face the threat of global climate change and dams represent a cleaner, carbon neutral power source compared to fossil fuels.

And yet, though the book shows its age, it’s a marvelous look back, a tantalizing reminder of what was. It’s fascinating to look back on the thoughts, hopes, and fears from those in 1970 from my moment of time, here and now in 2017. Even if 2017 and the near future look horrifically bleak for the environment, far more grim than anything Brower could have imaginaged in 1970.

Regardless, this book is a gem. As a way of looking back at where we’ve come in the hopes of understand where we’re going, I would consider this book a must-read for anyone interested in the natural world and the environment.

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Review: The Princess Diarist

The Princess DiaristThe Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard to know what to write, with Carrie Fisher’s death still so recent in my memory. I didn’t like “Wishful Drinking,” one of her earlier books, though know my scathing feelings towards the book feel sour and wrong somehow, and I have to resist the urge to go back and revise that old opinion. And I know that instinct is wrong, because it goes against my core belief that all books should exist independently of their authors and that, even for a memoir, it’s nothing personal. It’s just the book.

Fortunately, I’m happy to say that I enjoyed “Princess Diarist” much more. It’s a trim little volume at just over 200 pages (and several of those pages are diary excerpts, so it’s even shorter than you might think), but it broaches on a subject that I’ve been eager to read about and was, in my opinion, conspicuously absent in “Wishful Drinking,” which is how Fisher felt/feels about Star Wars. This is a book largely dedicated to that question.

It also has the benefit of having been written post-Episode VII, which saw a return of Leia as a character . . . one that I think Fisher, had she lived, would have been even more proud of. General Organa is an evolution of Princess Leia, an older, wiser, grizzled veteran who’s been fighting wars her entire life, who matured away from the metal bikini sex symbol eye candy role into a tough, capable leader. It’s a good evolution of the character and it’s a profound loss that we’ll never get a follow-up book to hear about that evolution in Fisher’s own writing voice.

So, if you’re wondering, should you read this book? Yes, you should. It’ll give you a lot to think about with Star Wars, character, and fandom, and it was already a great book even before Fisher’s death. Now, it’s a chance to hear her voice one more time and appreciate the insight she’s gleaned over her life and the perspective that she had.

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Review: Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life

Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your LifeWho’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life by Richard Florida
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

SimCity 2000 was a computer game in the late 90s that I absolutely loved. I played it for hours and hours, building city after city, destroying them and rebuilding them like so many sand castles. There have been more recent versions of that game, newer ones with better graphics, but none have ever managed to evoke the special feeling that this one did.

There was a neat little easter egg in the game; if you built a library and clicked on it, you had an option to “ruminate” which would display an essay by Neil Gaiman about cities. I’d like to quote part of it here:

“Occasionally I idle time away by wondering what cities would be like, were they people. Manhattan is, in my head, fast-talking, untrusting, well-dressed but unshaven. London is huge and confused. Paris is elegant and attractive, older than she looks. San Francisco is crazy, but harmless, and very friendly. It’s a foolish game: cities aren’t people.”

I’ve never gotten that particular image of my head, the idea of cities as people, with their own personalities and quirks.

I’ve lived in three cities throughout my life, each one about as far from the others as you can get. I started in upstate New York before moving to southern Arizona and now I find myself in the Pacific Northwest. The move to the Northwest happened only a few years ago and while “Who’s Your City” contains a lot of information that would have been helpful in making that decision to move, it ultimately confirmed and validated my decision. So, that’s good.

This is a good book. We don’t think about where we live often enough and just how much of a role that this plays in our lives. Author Richard Florida eloquently makes his point about just how much where you live will affect all aspects of your life, from what job you might have to who you might marry to how you’d raise your kids. This is information that I think everyone needs to consider; don’t just let your city be your city because it’s where you grew up. Even if you choose to stay in that city, it should be your conscious choice, not just the result of “well, here’s where I am.”

Unfortunately, aside from pointing out all the details about where you live being important for your life, aside from stats and graphs about who’s going where, there isn’t much more that’s done with the question of “who’s your city.” I came to the book hoping for profiles, maybe even write-ups about “who” some of the most populated cities really are. I might have even been hoping for a continuation of the little game that Gaiman’s essay started, imagining each city as having its own personality.

We don’t find anything like that here and while Florida is the consummate scholar who leaves no stone unturned and provides copious research to affirm his thesis, after the first few chapters, you get where he’s coming from, you’re likely in agreement, and if you’re like me, you were probably hoping for more time spent with the cities themselves. Unfortunately, that desire will need to be filled by another book.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of good information here. If you’re thinking of moving in the near future, I’d bump this one up to a strong recommendation. If you’ve already moved or you’re planning on sticking around, read it anyway, if only for the satisfaction of feeling validated after the fact.

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Review: Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species DivideBeing a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I started off greatly intrigued by the premise, but my expectations for what the book was going to be ended up not panning out. From the author’s forward, what I imagined I would be reading was a series of narrative nonfiction essays told from the perspective of the various beasts. Each beast would be a different character and various things would happen to them; all approximated, of course, because of the whole subjective nature of individual minds, especially human minds trying to approximate nonhuman minds. However, none of those expectations panned out.

Ultimately, we have musings that wander back and forth through various topics while making commentary on eating earthworms, tasting slugs (seriously, don’t ever do that), and rolling around in the woods for a while. While it started out interesting enough, the essay on otters started to lose me, as the author begins to create an emotional understanding of different animals that feels painfully antiquarian. And then, of course, there’s his opinion on cats (he hates them) and that was where I found myself in the weeds with regards to “Being a Beast.” I finished it out of a sense of obligation, having come so far (also I never allow myself to review books that I have not read in their entirety.)

Final verdict: a weird book that starts off with an interesting premise, but meanders and chases its own tail. There are a few interesting anecdotes along the way (such as the discussion with a police officer about how the author is “trying to be a fox”), but they are few and far between. It becomes increasingly difficult to determine when the author is being sincere and when he is being hyperbolic. I came away from the book feeling mostly disappointed by my misunderstanding of the premise. Which might say more about me than the book (it does), but that’s what you get when you read reviews from nonprofessional dilettantes such as myself.

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Book Review: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small IslandNotes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’ve read quite a few of Bill Bryson’s books. This is the first one I didn’t really enjoy and I’m sad to say that.

I picked this one up, quite appropriately, I thought, during my honeymoon to the UK. There was something marvelous about reading about traveling in the UK while doing so myself, particularly when the Welsh town of Lladudno makes a brief appearance. We stayed there for a few days and it was quite lovely, so it was a thrill to see it get mentioned. Bryson is a witty writer and at his best, his observations earn laughs or at least smiles.

However.

I’m not sure if it’s because this was one of his earliest books and he refined his style or if it’s because he was just in a bad mood during a lot of these journeys or if he mellowed out later with age, but the Bryson in this book is . . . well, mean. He seems like a jerk. There were exchanges earlier in the book that made me wince a little bit, but I wrote down the exact moment he lost me:

From Chapter 26:

In the end, fractious and impatient, I went into a crowded McDonald’s, waited ages in a long, shuffling line, which made me even more fractious and impatient, and finally ordered a cup of coffee and an Egg McMuffin.

“Do you want an apple turnover with that?” asked the young man who served me.

I looked at him for a moment. “I’m sorry,” I said, “do I appear to be brain-damaged?”

“Pardon?”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t ask for an apple turnover, did I?”

“Uh, . . . no.”

“So do I look as if I have some mental condition that would render me unable to request an apple turnover if I wanted one?”

“No, it’s just that we’re told to ask everyone, like.”

“What, you think everyone in Edinburgh is brain-damaged?”

“We’re just told to ask everyone, like.”

“Well, I don’t want an apple turnover, which is why I didn’t ask for one. Is there anything else you’d like to know if I don’t want?”

“We’re just told to ask everyone.”

“Do you remember what I do want?”

He looked in confusion at his cash register. “Uh, an Egg McMuffin and a cup of coffee.”

“Do you think I might have it this morning or shall we talk some more?”

“Oh, uh, right, I’ll just get it.”

“Thank you.”

Where do I even start? He complains about the kid behind the counter wasting his time, when he was the one that prompted the ridiculous exchange by being an asshole in the first place. A simple “no, thank you” to the question would have had him right along on his way.

We all have bad days. I get that. And he notes before and after this passage that he was feeling “fractious.” But here’s the thing. I’ve been that teenage kid, working a shitty entry job that I didn’t want to do, because I needed to be able to afford to drive myself to school. I’ve had stupid corporate requirements and disinterested managers force me to use scripts, force me to pitch things that I knew customers didn’t want, forced me to upsell, etc. I know that this isn’t the kid’s fault. And anyone who’s been on the other side of that cash register knows it, too.

If you’ve ever worked food service or retail or any other job where you’re the public face, you know that the guy or girl at that register has no power. They don’t make any of these decisions. Why upbraid them, except to make them feel worse and to make yourself feel better? Everyone knows this, except, apparently, for Bryson. But all I felt after reading this passage was a reminder of all the goddamn times a customer has been an asshole to me over the years and how much it sucks, how much it ruins the rest of your day, and how much you despise people that do that to you. A simple “no, thank you” would get everyone on with the rest of their day. Hell, if you really felt the need to make a point, ask to talk to a shift manager, who only has slightly more power than the poor kid, but at least there’s a chance they have some control over it (although, having been the shift manager too, I can say that it’s unlikely).

Here’s the thing. It’s only a few pages and it comes towards the end of the book. But were this a fiction novel, this would be a character defining moment. This is the sort of thing that shows us who a person is, by how he treats his perceived lessers. And this, compared with earlier comments, makes me feel as though Bryson is a mean person, a jerk, the kind of tourist I cringe when I see, the kind of person who would embarrass the hell out of me doing exactly this kind of thing, all because he feels so fucking smart that he has to point out all the little bits of bullshit in the world around him, when the rest of us just want to get through that bullshit as intact as possible, without breaking character.

Fortunately, his later books don’t cast Bryson as this much of a churl, but rarely have I been so turned off in a book such as this. Skip this one. Read his other, better work. How the hell this chapter made it past his editor is beyond me.

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Book Review: The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence

The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of AffluenceThe New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence by David Remnick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A curious mixture of the sublime and the staid. With any articles read more than a few years removed from the era in which they were written, there is a chance that they will not have aged well, that the context in which they flourished no longer permeates the world. One hopes that such things will have a certain timelessness, which would be why they’re worth putting into a book in the first place, but this doesn’t always work. And then there’s the chance that even the book itself might not be lasting, might be subject to the same whims. This collection was published in late 2001, a scant few months after the world changed.

How does this collection hold up, almost fifteen years later? Interestingly, some of it does. It’s fascinating to see Trump’s name pop up early in the book and read about him as we knew him in 2001, with little idea that in 2016, he’s be . . . well, what he is now (it should go without saying that my politics do not align with his, but as a student of the world, there’s still something interesting here. Even terrible men can be interesting). Likewise, coming back to the story of Bill Gates in the wake of the Microsoft anti-trust case . . . remember when that was a thing? It was a different world.

The book is front-loaded with its best stuff; its human stories, the ones that stand up to the test of time because they are about people in moments of time, people that, for the most part, are still around, still doing things, still interesting. Not all of them, of course, but enough that it’s fun to do the “where are they now” calculation as you read.

After that, however, things start to wander. It’s obvious we couldn’t have known in 2001 what 2016 would be, how some of the problems were eerily prescient and some we could have never imagined. Does it justify your time? Depends on how you feel about leaving books unfinished. For me, it was incumbent upon me to read everything, to earn my right to complete and review it. For you, dear reader? I think it’s fair if you pick this one up and, like trail mix or a bowl of Lucky Charms, pick out the tastiest-looking bits and leave the rest alone.

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Review: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the InternetTubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Near the end of the book, the author realizes that he’s flown all over the world to essentially look at corrugated steel boxes in nondescript warehouses and feels a moment of despair; for me, it’s the moment that points out that while “Tubes” is lofty in its aim, it’s uneven in its execution. Essentially, we really are reading a travelogue about a guy wandering around the world to visit warehouses and talk to the people who work there. For the most part, it’s rather mundane, but the book redeems itself with poetic musings about what the Internet really is, how we perceive it, and the massive amount of unseen infrastructure that go into maintaining it.

It’s a neat idea; where is the Internet? And certain aspects of it are undeniably cool, such as the undersea transoceanic cables that connect America to Europe to Africa (look up a picture if you’ve never heard of these, they are literally these insanely long cables running across the ocean). But while author Andrew Blum continually defends his mission of “wanting to visit the Internet” to the skeptical, the reality is that finding the Internet’s physical structure is much like finding the man behind the curtain. Certainly, there is expertise and skill on display. There is brilliance woven into and through the various component pieces. But what they form is something much more impressive than the physical reality. Because the physical reality tends to be a steel box with a snake’s nest of cables everywhere.

Blum’s musings on the Internet and the genesis for his quest are the book’s highlights and the question he works to answer is provocative; how much time do any of us actually spend thinking about the physical reality of this crazy network we’ve assembled? It’s exciting to consider the scope. But the reality is as mundane as the scope itself is impressive and “Tubes” loses steam when we and the author realize that. Even so, it’s a quick enough read and worth a bit of wandering for those that are curious.

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Review: The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale

The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the TaleThe Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale by Susan Maushart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First, an observation; if you want a particularly surreal reading experience, read a book about forgoing screens on an ereader or tablet device, as I did. As the author describes giving up the iPhone, iPad, other i-prefixed devices, you can reflect on how for you do to likewise would mean not being able to continue reading. It’s a weird feeling.

Anyway, author Susan Maushart decides her family is too wired, too jacked in, too tuned in, etc. and decides to Thoreau (hah!) all away for six months of digital exile. It’s an interesting idea that gains a fair bit of traction when you read about various family members falling asleep with their devices; even as a ferocious gamer and person who spends most of his day tied to a screen at work, the Maushart house’s level of digital dependency felt extreme.

And yet. And yet.

It’s not going to come as a surprise that Maushart’s decision to cite Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” immediately dropped my estimation of this book (for those who haven’t been reading my reviews that far back, Bauerlein was one of my most scathingly negative reviews I’ve ever posted). Maushart walks a finer line on the topic, but eventually she succumbs to the same age-ism of Bauerlein and points out that “no, things really were better in my day” even after pointing out that every generation since Socrates was “ruined” by whatever new technology came along (for Socrates, it was the written word and literacy that were ruining the youth of Athens). Many of the things that Maushart seems certain of about the relative merits of her youth to her kids’ youth seem to be little more than the trap that we all fall into as we get older.

Returning to the point about the fact that I read this book on a tablet; my larger problem with Maushart’s disconnection experiment is that never once is the subject of the content itself addressed. This isn’t a “well, just watch the documentary” argument, it’s good for you (most studies have shown that watching documentaries has a negligible positive cognitive effect), but instead realizing that not all screen time is created equally. The reality is that we are never again going to live in a society that is not infused with technology and as much as I love Walden Pond, a Thoreau-like existence is not feasible on a large social scale. Rather than trying to go without, we should be learning techniques to manage the role of tech in our lives.

Also, the fact that, despite all the amazing personal gains and achievements made during “the experiment,” very few pages are spent talking about the aftermath once the screens came back led me to believe that the effects were short-lived. Was the son still practicing his instrument religiously after the experiment was over? The book doesn’t say.

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